Scholars Supply Enticing Extras for DVDs
USC historians engage film buffs with their commentary and personal perspectives on screen gems of the past.
Suddenly, film buffs all over the world can see and hear professors provide insights or expound on their theories.
USC, with its top-ranked School of Cinematic Arts and proximity to Hollywood, is well represented in the select fraternity of DVD commentators. Professors Drew Casper, Rick Jewell and Todd Boyd all appear frequently on the small plasma or computer screen, as does Leo Braudy, University Professor and holder of the Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature.
“I consider it exactly like a classroom or a lecture,” said Casper, who teaches three enormously popular critical studies courses. “It’s extended my teaching into the electronic media.”
In DVD documentaries, experts appear on camera and answer questions about a film. For DVD commentaries, only their voices are heard, talking over the action on the screen.
Casper did his first DVD commentary in 2004 on the 1950 film “The Asphalt Jungle” at the request of a former student who worked at a production company. Since then, he’s done about 50 more commentaries or documentaries involving “Double Indemnity,” “The Hustler,” “The Wizard of Oz,” Alfred Hitchcock’s “Lifeboat,” a Bette Davis collection, five Tennessee Williams films and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
“Commentaries take an inordinate amount of time to do,” Casper said. “I watch the film again, I handwrite notes and then I prepare the whole commentary like a lecture. You need to synch your words with the image and time your comments to the scene. It’s a lot of work. As many as I’ve done, I’ve turned down more.”
He gets immediate feedback that his work is being seen by a wider audience.
“I get e-mail like you can’t believe,” Casper said. “Not a week goes by that I don’t hear from one to four people from all over the world.”
Jewell, an expert on 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, teaches courses in American film history and co-teaches a course on film censorship with Casper. He also was first tapped for DVD work by a former student, in his case a producer at New Wave Entertainment.
Sought after for his perspectives on the full range of topics related to film during the initial years of sound, Jewell has done commentaries on the films “Little Caesar,” “I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” and “G Men,” an introduction to the MGM film “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” and he has appeared in special features on many discs. He estimates that he’s been filmed for more than 25 documentaries, including collections of films with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart.
DVD special features usually are farmed out to boutique companies to produce, Jewell explained. “Some studios do a superb job of these and some don’t. Warner Brothers has been terrific, adding all sorts of special features to its releases, such as newsreels, cartoons, archival material and documentaries.”
Boyd may have been the first of the four to do a commentary. In 1996, he provided insights for a laser disc of the film “Dead Presidents.” He has since done commentaries or documentaries on “The Mack,” “Super Fly,” “New Jack City,” “Stormy Weather” and “Uptown Saturday Night.” He and Casper both supplied commentary for “Cabin in the Sky.”
Boyd sees these commentaries simply as an extension of his already-significant media profile and doesn’t place them front and center. “They don’t provide me with nearly the audience that I get on ESPN or NPR or The New York Times,” he noted.
Braudy has done about a dozen commentaries on crime and horror films (including "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") as well as "The Dirty Dozen," "A Face in the Crowd" and a collection of "Superman" films.
He also credits a former student now at New Wave Entertainment for tapping him for assignments. The commentary he's gotten the most response to is the "Star Wars" boxed set. "I can't count the number of students who have come up to tell me they saw that," Braudy said
Universities don’t count their efforts as publications, Jewell noted, although DVDs reach a much broader audience than academic journals. The pay is generally low, so the compensation lies elsewhere.
“I like the fact that my overview of ‘Little Caesar,’ for example, is going to be there for posterity,” he said. “These commentaries can have real historic value.”
One reason he’s called to comment on films from the’30s and ’40s, Jewell candidly admitted, is that most of those associated with the films are dead. “If Billy Wilder and Fritz Lang were still here, they’d be begging them to discuss their work,” he said.
With newer films, studios seem content to interview directors and stars, Jewell observed. But film academics could provide comments on historic significance, editing, lighting and other production values, he said. Still, he’s not optimistic about DVD commentaries as a growth industry.
“They’ve released most of the good stuff in the vaults,” he said. “The ones that are left are often tied up because of rights problems. They haven’t completely exhausted the vaults, but most of the remaining films probably do not have significant commercial value.”
Boyd, like his two colleagues, questions whether there is a future for commentaries, or indeed, DVDs themselves.
“DVD sales are declining. As Apple and Amazon make it easier to download movies, I’m not sure whether these DVD supplementary pieces will transfer to the new media.”
Boyd said the situation mirrors what is happening to music CDs.
“I love getting the whole package – the album artwork, liner notes, which musicians play on which songs. But you don’t get that when you download music. The question is whether when you transfer from DVDs to downloadable movies, will customers want the extras and bonus features?”
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